HL Deb 19 January 1989 vol 503 cc398-402

7.41 p.m.

Baroness Trumpington rose to move, That the scheme laid before the House on 28th November 1988 be approved [2nd Report from the Joint Committee].

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, the House may recall my right honourable friend the Minister's announcement on 28th November about changes in farm capital grants. He explained that following a review of the current arrangements we hoped to introduce a new grant scheme in February. To prepare for the new scheme, the Agriculture Improvement Scheme (or AIS) was closed from the day following the announcement. The statutory instrument before us today enforces that closure for the nationally-funded part of the scheme. The closure of the partly EC-funded part is covered by the Agriculture Improvement (Amendment) (No. 3) Regulations, which were laid before Parliament at the same time as this instrument but which are subject to the negative resolution procedure.

The new Farm and Conservation Grant Scheme (which will be the subject of a separate debate very soon, I hope) has of course to be cleared by the European Commission before it can be implemented. Discussions on it are still continuing in Brussels but should be concluded shortly. However, for reasons which I shall mention later we did not feel it right to delay an announcement about our intentions until every detail was settled. Although this meant our accepting no new applications for improvement plans under the AIS, all those which were already approved or which had been submitted and were awaiting approval are unaffected by the closure. Similarly, investments outside an improvement plan on which farmers can demonstrate they had already committed themselves by midnight on 28th November will qualify for grant.

There are also a few exceptions to the moratorium. The 45 per cent. grants for the replacement of heated glasshouses will remain in place until the end of November this year, as had been announced before the closure. In addition, the special grants for improvement of the quality and marketing of flower production in the Isles of Scilly which were introduced from 17th November and which your Lordships debated just before Christmas will continue until the new scheme is introduced. They will then be continued unchanged in that scheme.

In addition, under the terms of the instrument, farmers who have claims outstanding for eligible work under the nationally-funded part of the AIS will have to submit their claims no later than 31st May. Those with a current improvement plan who are debarred by the rules from submitting such claims during the life of their plan will have one month after the formal termination of their plan to submit those claims.

I am aware that the closure of the AIS may have caused problems for some people and I sympathise with those difficulties. However, if we had announced the outline of our proposed new scheme without closing the existing one there would have been an incentive for farmers to put in speculative applications for improvement plans to try to secure those grants we had decided to discontinue, or on which the rate may be different under the new scheme. That would have undercut the purpose of the changes. It would also, I am bound to say, have led to a rush of expenditure for which we have no provision. We remain, however, determined to keep the break in our grant schemes as short as we possibly can. We are working hard on finalising the details of the new scheme which we look forward to bringing before the House at a very early date. I commend this instrument to your Lordships.

Moved, That the scheme laid before the House on 28th November 1988 be approved [2nd Report from the Joint Committee].—(Baroness Trumpington.)

7.45 p.m.

Lord Gallacher

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for the remarks she made in speaking to the proposal that the Motion be approved. When we looked at the No. 2 order quite recently—affecting as it did the Isles of Scilly—I said that there might possibly be a few more detailed comments in respect of this one. I hope that in the time available to us she will accept that the points I wish to raise are considered by us to be of some consequence.

The speech tonight follows on from the Written Answer which appeared in the Official Report on 29th November last year (at col. 294) in which the new scheme entitled the Farm Conservation Grants Scheme was announced as being introduced in February 1989—subject, as the noble Baroness said this evening, to the provisions of that scheme being agreed with the EC Commission. This evening the noble Baroness said that negotiations are going on, that there is hope for finality soon and that she hopes the changes indicated in the Written Answer will be implemented as they appeared there.

We are anxious to have a debate on the new scheme because we regard it as being of considerable importance, and I wonder whether it is possible to say at this stage if such a debate is likely to be sooner rather than later. More important, perhaps, I should like to know whether any further changes will be possible in the scheme in the light of any debate which we may have on it.

We are all conservationists now, but farmers at this time are also being urged to continue diversification in anticipation of even tougher CAP price regimes. In that connection I can mention the speech of the Minister's right honourable friend to the Oxford Farm Conference, and the joint Ministry of Agriculture and Department of the Environment brochure which came my way this morning concerning planning permission and the environment.

Further, there are the farm business clinics sponsored by ADAS, together with the Rural Development Commission and certain local authorities. Do not all those endeavours suggest a likely demand for access to new farm enterprises? If that is so, perhaps I may ask the noble Baroness why, under the new scheme, grants for roads are being discontinued. Those who have more experience of refused planning applications than I have are well aware that poor access is very frequently given by local authorities as a reason for refusing planning consent. Therefore we find it strange that in the scheme now before us grants for roads have been discontinued.

As good conservationists, we welcome proposals for controls in respect of the storage, treatment and disposal of slurry and silage effluent, including, I am happy to say yet again, a series of country-wide meetings arranged by ADAS in conjunction with certain trade interests.

We are also happy to note the proposal to continue enhanced rates for replacing old wooden glasshouses with modern aluminium houses. That will be a considerable help to horticulture in enabling that industry to meet the growing Spanish and Portuguese competition flowing from their entry into the European Community.

In the statement this evening no mention was made of the continuance of orchard replanting grants. But in the original statement those were also included, along with the grants for horticulture. We are perhaps less enthusiastic about the principle of continuing tree-planting grants, but we are in favour of some examination of the orchard replanting grant system at present. I notice that the Apple and Pear Development Council's future is now subject to the usual quinquennial review, and 1 think it is important in the context of that review to take account of the grant position for replanting.

The French dominance of the apple market is of considerable concern to us. It is a continuing and ongoing feature and we feel that perhaps an organisation such as Food From Britain might be asked to look at the whole question and in particular the way in which retailers apparently give such precedence to French apples in their shops. For example, the Apple and Pear Development Council report for 1988 gives the UK production of apples in 1987 at 260,500 tonnes. Imports were 443,340 tonnes, of which no less than 248,562 tonnes came from France. Thus the apple market is supplied as to 37 per cent. from the United Kingdom and 63 per cent. imported.

Even allowing for the fact that 1987 was the year of the hurricane in late October, these are disappointing figures. They continue a trend which has been apparent for some years. I think it is important, having regard to this trend, to consider the question in greater detail before we continue for a further period, as specified on 29th November, with grants for replanting. I am not saying that they should not be continued, I am saying that we should have a clearer idea of what the future is for the home industry before we use further sums of money for that enterprise.

These are the few comments we have on the proposal. I do not expect the noble Baroness to reply to any or all of them this evening. On the whole we welcome the order and we look forward to an early debate on the proposals themselves once they have received the blessing of the European Commission.

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, it is jolly bad luck on the noble Lord, Lord Gallacher, because I shall reply to one or two of his points since I have just sufficient time, I think. Perhaps I may thank him very much indeed for what he said. I hope that the debate, which is a matter for the usual channels, will be sooner rather than later. The sooner the better from our point of view, but the noble Lord will realise that this is a matter of when the proposals are cleared through the EC. No amendments can be made to the new scheme as a result of this debate on it. It will be monitored, as are other schemes, but any changes will be made in the light of experience. The noble Lord will understand that as the negotiations are going on in the EC, we do not want to delay them any more.

With regard to roads, it is clear that certain grants which have helped to stimulate the productive capacity of the industry in the past are less appropriate in the present circumstances. The grants for roads are counted among them. The new scheme concentrates particularly on environmentally beneficial items.

The apples and pears are a little outside this evening's debate, but I should like to say how very glad I was that the tree planting scheme is to be continued. I also wish to say how glad I am that the House of Lords catering department is now selling British apples. On that happy note, perhaps I may conclude that your Lordships will approve this instrument. I look forward to an early debate on the new scheme.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now adjourn during pleasure until five minutes past eight.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

[The Sitting was suspended from 7.55 to 8.5 p.m.]